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CNN and the Cable News Ticker Invasion

Here’s the bottom line: Cable news tickers are taking over television — and man, are they addictive.

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Can you concentrate only when two people are talking to you at once? Do you go to foreign films just for the pleasure of reading the subtitles? When a train goes by, do you wish it had sentences painted on the side? If so, you just might have crawl fever.

And how could you avoid becoming hooked on these hypnotic stock-ticker-like updates, which ceaselessly scroll the latest headlines on the bottom of all-news networks CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News Channel? All three inserted the crawls on Sept. 11 (Fox was first, at around 10:45 a.m.), and to date they have no plans to end the loops. Now these screen staples are sliding over to non-news networks like Court TV, making an Animal Planet panda-update ticker a near inevitability.

For those of you following along, here are some fast crawl facts: Each network rotates up to 80 headlines in a 7-to-15-minute loop, with news-desk editors and writers inserting new headlines to replace old ones as they arise. While the look of the scrolls doesn’t vary much by channel, certain nuances do emerge: MSNBC (which, like Fox News, runs its crawl through commercials) almost exclusively dedicates its ticker to anthrax, terrorism, and the war abroad, but Fox News and CNN include the occasional showbiz or sports nugget. Explains Fox News assignment manager David Rhodes, ”It’s the only place we can report some of those things right now.”

The tickers’ tones also differ: Fox News’ crawl takes a purely just-the-facts approach, while CNN peppers its scroll with poll questions, plugs for CNN.com, and occasional pun flourishes: A ”Foul Play” slug recently introduced a story about the potential dismantling of two major league baseball teams. By mixing whimsical wordplay with grim war reports, ”our people found a way to have a little fun while giving a headline. I suspect it draws [viewers’] attention,” explains CNN VP Sue Bunda.

With cable news crawls providing instant update gratification for anxious Americans, other networks have adopted them as a defensive measure. The week of Sept. 17, Court TV added a ticker that splits its content between justice-system and global news briefs, in an effort to keep headline-hungry viewers from clicking away. Says Court TV VP Marlene Dann, ”We want people to watch a trial, but not feel that they’re missing out on events.” News scrolling has become such a fixture that it’s already ripe for parody: Last month, VH1 added an often comic pop-culture crawl to its morning show, Jump Start. ”The existence of the VH1 ticker is proof that it’s officially become a television cliché,” laughs VH1 news exec Michael Hirschorn. (An item about a free ‘N Sync Veterans Day concert added, ”Vets Wondered, ‘I Defeated Hitler for This?”’)

While some channels are getting a little too scroll-dependent — a viewer could get vertigo watching CNBC, which has three simultaneous crawls, stacking two stock tickers on top of news borrowed from MSNBC—news execs dismiss the idea that all this creeping information results in factoid overkill. ”You know who raises this question? Media critics,” says Fox’s Rhodes. ”I have just not seen evidence that [viewers are] turned off by it…. Everybody out there is intelligent enough to read a crawl and watch television at the same time.”